Modern Takes On Nuevo Tango: 5 Latin Jazz Versions Of Astor Piazzolla

by chip on July 1, 2010

Tango holds a curious spot in Latin Jazz history, keeping a precarious connection between jazz and Argentinean culture.  On the one hand, many Latin Jazz musicians are familiar with some of the larger names in tango, holding a high respect for Argentina and its music.  This admiration comes from listening and watching performances, but in many cases, their repertoire never taps upon tango styles. The music simply sits outside of their performance experience and they don’t have the knowledge to integrate the music into jazz in an authentic and respectful way. The tango dance craze took hold if the United States during the early twentieth century, but the music was often misrepresented with a watered down style, easily consumable by the American public. As a result of this cultural mishmash, a generic tango rhythm eventually found it way into jazz, sitting in the backdrop of many swing era and bebop recordings.  This shallow representation of tango got caught up in the obscure concept of “Latin” and it lacked a real connection to Argentinean culture. Tango consists of much more than a basic rhythm to be thrown underneath bebop chord changes though; it involves complex harmonic, melodic, and arrangement conventions. Once musicians gained a greater knowledge of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms, white-washed versions of tango became more rare in the jazz realm. As Latin Jazz moved into the twenty-first century, Argentinean musicians brought a more thorough knowledge of tango into the jazz world, finding a defined place for the music in the Latin Jazz world.

2009 Latin Jazz Corner Hall Of Fame Inductee Astor Piazzolla created some of the most beautiful and influential tango of the twentieth century, developing a repertoire that clearly touched the jazz world. Piazzolla’s compositional approach sat upon a foundation based in tango conventions, but also included techniques from classical writing and enthusiastically integrated his interest in jazz. While many musicians have been captivated by the emotional impact of the music, the harmonic beauty of Piazzolla’s compositions, and the stunning context for jazz ideas, their integration of Piazzolla’s repertoire has been slow. The hesitation towards Piazzolla’s music has once again most likely been a reaction to the general lack of understanding around the composer’s work; the general aesthetics of tango performance differ quite distinctly from jazz. The presence of improvisation and jazz harmonies may be appealing, but without a connection to tango ideals, the music just won’t work. As a result, Piazzolla is almost always admired, but rarely performed in jazz circles.

Fortunately, a number of musicians have taken steps towards understanding tango and found a place for Piazzolla in their repertoire. This is an encouraging trend, one that hopefully gains momentum until Piazzolla finds a permanent place in the world of Latin Jazz standards. I’ve compiled a collection of five fantastic versions of Piazzolla classics, seen through jazz eyes. Each artist finds their own unique way to bring Piazzolla into a Latin Jazz context, resulting in outstanding music. Enjoy!

“Libertango” – Dançando Com Ale, Greg Diamond
Guitarist Greg Diamond takes one of Piazzolla’s most beloved compositions, “Libertango,” and turns it into a smart vehicle for improvisation. While bassist Edward Perez holds a steady foundation, Diamond holds the iconic riffs that anchors song and saxophonists Brian Hogans and Seamus Blake sensitively interpret the melody. A beautiful set of chord changes frame the song’s structure, and Diamond plays them with finesse while Blake tears through a fiery improvisation with a bold tenor tone. Diamond treats the song like a jazz standard, letting Blake stretch out over the changes while drummer Ferenc Nemeth and percussionist Arturo Stable interact with an energetic spontaneity. The group connects to Piazzolla again with a return to the melody before the saxophonists grab the main riff while Diamond improvises over the song. Diamond plays upon the strength of the harmonic structure here, finding a common thread between jazz and tango – beautiful chord changes. These changes allow him to find room for ample improvisation, skillfully bringing Piazzolla into the jazz realm.

“Revirado” – Funk Tango, Paquito D’Rivera
Saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera integrated a heavy Argentinean influence into his 2007 album Funk Tango, paying respects to Piazzolla with a version of his song “Revirado.” D’Rivera and his group play upon many tango conventions here, most prominently using the instantly recognizable sound of the bandoneon, played with style by Hector del Curto. The group winds through a tightly arranged version of the melody, relying upon the textural differences of instrumental combination to add variety. Outstanding rhythm section work from drummer Mark Walker and bassist Oscar Stagnaro give the song a typically Piazzolla-like rhythmic momentum that shifts tempo with the demands of the composition. D’Rivera and trumpet player Diego Urcola both take memorable solos over different sections of the songs, blending bebop influenced lines into the texture. The musicians play with sensitivity to the texture though, bending the boppish nature of the song into the tango setting with a perceptive grace. Pianist Alon Yavnai leans towards a more typical tango sound, following the lead set by pianists from Piazzolla’s groups. As the band slows into a solo piece of the melody from del Curto, they build momentum back into the song’s climax, finding a good balance between tango arrangement and jazz improvisation.

“Adios Nonino” – Viva, Diego Urcola
Argentinean trumpet player Diego Urcola has found plenty of opportunities to explore his cultural background through a jazz lens, and he takes the opportunity to look at one of his country’s most important composers on the 2006 recording Viva with a stunning version of “Adios Noniño.” Vibraphonist Dave Samuels arpeggiates shimmering waves of chords, creating a beautiful texture for a melancholy improvised introduction by Urcola. The rhythm section creates a gentle rhythmic motion as Samuels takes over the melodic tole, slowing to a pause awaiting Urcola’s entrance. The trumpet player falls into a reflective and personal interpretation of the classic melody while the rhythm section supports him with washes of jazz flavored embellishment. Samuels joins Urcola on melodic duties, but the rhythm section work really sets the mood as drummer Antonio Sanchez, pianist Edward Simon, and bassist Avishai Cohen rely upon colorful textures. There’s an spacious feeling of grandeur behind Samuel’s improvisation, as Sanchez interacts subtly, Cohen holds a standard tango figure, and Simon provides rich chordal sounds. As Urcola leaps into his solo with a passionate vigor, both Simon and Sanchez push the song with more motion, helping the trumpet player charge into a cleverly embellished version of the melody. There’s some gorgeous playing on this version of the Piazzolla classic, but what makes it unique is the rhythm section approach, gently combining jazz aesthetics and tango conventions into a dynamic mixture.

“Deus Xango” – Avantango, Pablo Aslan
Argentinean bassist Pablo Aslan grew up surrounded by the influence of Piazzolla before leaping into the jazz world, and he wisely brings his experiences in both areas into his version of “Deus Xango” from his 2004 release Avantango. Pianist Dario Eskenazi, bandoneon player Hector del Curto, and Aslan establish a plodding vamp until del Curto breaks away into the main melody. Although Aslan starts the song with a very traditional tango sound, a jazz influence starts to creep into the music as saxophonist Oscar Feldman and trumpet player Diego Urcola weave lines around del Curto’s melody. Piazzolla originally recorded this composition on his collaboration with jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, Summit, which brought together Mulligan’s improvisation skills with the composer’s fusion edged tango of the seventies. Paying his respects to this influential album, Aslan opens the floor to Feldman, who proceeds to express his connection to the music. Displaying a keen knowledge of the style, Feldman starts his improvisation with a return to the melody, playing through the composed line with expressive articulations and a sense of free phrasing. Once the saxophonist cuts loose, he digs into the piece with an enthusiastic zeal, attacking the song with full force. He smartly utilizes thematic development, climbing into the screaming upper registers of his instrument to bring his improvisation and the song to a climatic end. Aslan and his group show a strong knowledge of Piazzolla and the tango tradition on this track, allowing them to integrate jazz freely.

“Imágenes 676″ – Quintet for New Tango, Pablo Ziegler
Pianist Pablo Ziegler spent many years as a member of Piazzolla’s New Tango Quintet, soaking in the master composer’s knowledge, which he puts on display with a wonderful version of “Imágenes 676.” A dramatic interplay between Ziegler’s piano and bandoneon player Walter Castro open the piece with an attention grabbing flair before the whole group charges into a driving momentum. Ziegler, Castro, and guitarist Enrique Sinesi share melodic duties, storming through the dynamic series of phrases with passionate abandon. Drummer Horacio Lopez and bassist Horatio Hurtado push with an unrelenting intensity, sending the band flying into Sinesi’s improvisation. The guitarist avoids jazz conventions, basing his emerging phrases around tango vocabulary, adding to the excitement and cohesive nature of his statement. Sinesi’s solo quickly fades into the song’s arrangement, adhering to the rapidly changing textures of tango. The band quiets to a hush as Ziegler steps into his improvisation with a defined thematic clarity, running flowing lines over the rhythm section’s inertia. Ziegler combines several worlds here, referencing the melodic identity of tango, while bubbling with the spontaneity of jazz. This smart connection between musical worlds takes the song to a rousing finish, demonstrating the inherent jazz possibilities in Piazzolla’s music.

Check Out These Related Posts:
Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix: Astor Piazzolla
Latin Jazz Conversations: Pablo Aslan (Part 1)
Latin Jazz Photo Album: Greg Diamond
Moving Nuevo Tango Into The Next Generation: Buenos Aires Report, Pablo Ziegler

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